That guilty-pleasure donut you love will soon get a healthy makeover.
It started in 2015 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that artificial trans fats were unsafe to eat. The agency gave the food industry three years to reformulate products and ensure an orderly transition in the marketplace.
The final compliance date for specifically removing PHOs, which contain trans fats but also occur naturally in some meats, was Jan. 1, 2021.
In August 2023, the agency issued a direct final rule, making the decision permanent and enforceable. (A direct final rule process, intended for noncontroversial rules, allows an agency to issue a rule without the need for a double review process.)
Starting Dec. 22, 2023, no products containing PHOs will be allowed on grocery store shelves.
Following in the Footsteps of Other Countries
Denmark gained global attention as the first country to ban trans fats back in 2003. Between 2003 and 2018, restrictions followed in Switzerland, Iceland, Canada, Hungary, Norway, Sweden, and other countries.
In the United States, New York City, California, and parts of Maryland also set limits.
New York City enacted a city-wide phase-out on July 1, 2008, meaning foods containing half a gram or more of trans fat could no longer be stored, used, or served in food establishments in the Big Apple. California’s Trans Fat Bill went into effect in 2010, prohibiting the storage, serving, and distribution of PHOs in connection with food preparation in restaurants. Montgomery County, Maryland, blazed the trail as the first county in the United States to ban trans fats altogether. Restaurants and grocery stores that prepare food are limited to 0.5 gram or less.
What Exactly Are PHOs?
PHOs are oils that have undergone a process called hydrogenation, where hydrogen is added to liquid oils to make them more solid and stable at room temperature. This process transforms liquid oils into semi-solid fats, making them suitable for use in various food products.
These artificially created oils give food added texture, a more desirable taste, and a longer shelf life, all of which have made them a popular, cost-effective staple in restaurants and fast-food outlets.
PHOs contain trans fats, which are unsaturated fats with trans-isomer fatty acid configurations. Trans fats have been found to raise levels of LDL cholesterol (often referred to as “bad” cholesterol) in the blood, increasing the risk of heart disease.
How Trans Fat Affects Your Health
A diet heavy in trans fat is intrinsically tied to a laundry list of harms, resulting in everything from heart disease to cancer to diabetes. Banning the fats could prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year, according to the FDA.
Consumption of trans fat significantly increases the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), according to at least one comprehensive study.
Results showed that when measured on a per-calorie basis, trans fats seemed to increase the risk of CHD more than any other micronutrient and that a 2 percent increase in trans fat calories consumed increased the risk of CHD by at least 23 percent, with authors concluding trans fat is devoid of any nutritional value. Trans fat intake is responsible for up to 500,000 premature deaths from coronary heart disease each year around the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The WHO has called for eliminating trans fat, saying it provides no health benefit and poses huge risks that strain health care systems.
Trans fat also poses a serious risk when it comes to certain types of cancer. A 2021 meta-analysis of 46 studies found that high-trans fat diets increased prostate and colorectal cancer likelihood. Results of a 2018 systematic review linked high consumption of trans fatty acids to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and cancers of the mouth, throat, and esophagus.
Health officials point out that it is impossible to eliminate all trans fat because small amounts occur naturally in some meat and dairy. It is also present at low levels in other edible oils. Processed and fried foods are the primary dietary sources of trans fats, however. Examples include baked goods, shortening, microwave popcorn, pizza, biscuits, fried foods, nondairy creamer, and stick margarine.
A 2021 study showed mice fed diets high in trans fat expressed significantly higher levels of intestinal inflammation compared to mice fed diets high in saturated fat, mainly found in animal foods. In 2007, the WHO issued an advisory stating that trans fats should be considered industrial food additives hazardous to human health.
Chronic inflammation is a risk factor for a host of conditions, including Alzheimer’s, arthritis, diabetes, and heart and lung disease.
Evidence shows that long-term consumption of even small amounts of trans fat can interfere with cell function, potentially leading to insulin resistance and, subsequently, diabetes. One study found a connection between trans fat, insulin resistance, and impaired signaling after insulin receptor binding.
According to the Global Health Observatory, the WHO’s data depository, trans fats exacerbate insulin resistance, especially in individuals at risk due to high blood glucose levels, obesity, or lack of physical activity.
Simple Subs to Phase Out Trans Fats Before the Ban
While trans fats are understood to be unhealthy, there has been much debate about which fats are considered healthy in recent years. As there is evidence supporting both animal and plant fats, it is unhelpful to demonize one over the other. However, what can be agreed upon is that avoiding processed foods is key to avoiding the wrong sides of fats and other additives.
While a complete ban approaches, people can take steps now to improve their health by eliminating trans fats and opting for healthier fats.
A few tips for choosing healthier fats are as follows:
- Avoid processed foods. Some experts recommend choosing foods with five or fewer ingredients listed. To be extra safe, choose whole foods with no list of ingredients.
- Instead of dressings and marinades, use olive oil in salads.
- Handfuls of healthy nuts are better than potato chips or other processed snacks.
- Boost your intake of avocados; swap out mayo or other spreads with mashed avocado on sandwiches.
- Exchange meat for fish like wild-caught salmon or mackerel one or two times a week.